Watching Sandhill Cranes Make the Journey South

Winter is approaching, and the sandhill cranes have begun their long winter flight back South. Canadian nature writer Candace Savage stands in a field in Saskatchewan, watching the ancient bird species, and describes what she sees to host Debbie Elliott.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Eleven days ago, we received an e-mail from nature writer Candace Savage in Saskatoon, Canada. She wrote: Last night for the first time this fall we heard the wild, high-pitched gurgling calls of sandhill cranes, sweeping south from nesting grounds in the Boreal Forest to winter in the wetlands across the southern U.S. They come this way every fall to rest on sandbars in the South Saskatchewan River and feed in the stubble fields.

We reached Candace Savage in one of those stubble fields where the sandhill cranes are still gathering strength for the long flight ahead.

Candace, for our listeners who don't live along the sandhill cranes' flight path, tell us what these birds look like.

Ms. CANDACE SAVAGE (Nature Writer): Well, they're big, for one thing. They are three or four feet tall, the sandhills are, but they only weigh about six or seven pounds, so that's a lot of bird for not very much mass. And when you see them in the air they just lie out. They stretch their necks out, their feet are out behind them and their broad wings with slotted wingtips, they sort of pillow on the air. They're very, very magnificent to see in flight. But this morning it's pretty quiet here.

ELLIOTT: What are they doing?

SAVAGE: They're in small family groups. The birds that are closest to me are in a group of about four. They're just walking around slowly, picking up the grain that's been left in the field after the harvest.

ELLIOTT: You know, you hear a lot about bird migrations being disrupted by environmental changes and bird populations being threatened. Are the sandhill cranes among those threatened species?

SAVAGE: Well, the very good news is they are not. A few decades ago, conservationists were very worried about them because, of course, their cousins, the whooping cranes, are extremely rare. But sandhill cranes have been flourishing. So there are now about 800,000 of them in all. And I find it a mind-expanding activity to realize that they've been doing this in one way and another for a very, very long time. They're - the sandhill cranes are said to be - fossil evidence suggests they're about nine million years old as a species. And that makes them one of the oldest living birds on the planet. So in one way or another they've adapted to ice ages; the glaciers have come and gone several times in that time. And obviously they've adapted to the environmental conditions of agriculture. So they're flourishing.

But even if you don't have a chance to see them, if they're not likely to land where you live, you can listen for them, because in flight they - oh, there's two of them out there having a little bit of a wing flap and a tiff with one another. Even in flight they call to one another, and on that wonderful high pitched musical gargling sound that they make, and it carries for - easily for several miles.

ELLIOTT: So could you give us a little sample of what they sound like?

SAVAGE: Oh, I can hardly even describe it in words. I really can't. Ask me to caw, I can do that. But cranes have trombone like windpipes inside their breastbones and so they can make sounds that really defy my ability to do it.

ELLIOTT: Candace Savage in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Her book is called Crows: Encounters With the Wise Guys. We reached her in an encounter with sandhill cranes. Thanks so much, Candace.

SAVAGE: Oh, thank you.

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